Monday, February 21, 2011

Turn the Other Cheek

Scripture for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

On these late Epiphany Sundays we’re hearing Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, piecemeal, not all at once. Our Lord’s social vision is deeply challenging, and hearing it in installments may give us all we can handle at one sitting.

Hearing verses from Leviticus, the law book of Israel, helps us gauge how novel Jesus’s teachings were—and were not. To borrow language from St. Paul, Jesus is both laying a fresh foundation—I find his insistence on loving our enemies boldly revolutionary, don’t you?—while he’s also building on the ancient foundation of enlightened Jewish law. We hear an example of ancient inspiration in the command not to harvest all the square footage of a field: leave some for the poor. Like loving your enemies, not claiming every square foot you’ve got coming to you might be called unnatural. But this shows how law can breed in us finer instincts and a higher nature.

Today’s portion of his sermon shows Jesus tearing down an ancient keystone that he declares unworthy of any further obedience, and that is the standard of retributive justice, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Once upon a time, that had been a step up the evolutionary ladder from wild unrestrained revenge. But here, two thousand years ago, Jesus declares it uninspiring, not suited to undergirding his social vision, inadequate to describe and advance the Kingdom of God.

Notice how Jesus reaches into the gutter of ordinary violence to find inspiring standards for human behavior. And if I’m not mistaken, he implies—without saying it, but it’s there between the lines—it may be pillars of society, and it may be the emperor’s soldiers, who are the worst evildoers. Any thug can strike you on the cheek, but Jesus’s hearers would instantly recognize the heavy hand of the wealthy who would sue a poor farmer, unashamed to sue the pants off him (or, in this case, to take his coat), and the even heavier hand of the emperor’s finest, soldiers who ran roughshod over people in the street. Those armored keepers of the Pax Romana were authorized to press ordinary people into carrying soldiers’ packs and commandeered supplies one mile, and they surely weren’t above making that two miles.

“Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”

Mary Gaitskill has a fiction piece in the last New Yorker, a chilling tale of a now responsible citizen who as a teenager cultivated fantasies of domination, twisting him to try what he was thinking. Stealing a pistol from his friend’s home, he hitchhiked one day and was picked up by a woman who fitted his fantasies (older than he’d wanted, forty or so, but still good-looking). Adrenaline rushing his system, he pulled out the pistol and threatened to shoot this woman if she didn’t drive him to a certain place. Instead, she instantly pulled over, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “Go ahead. I’m ready.” Pointing to her forehead, she ordered him, “Put it right there.” Opening her jacket, she directed him, “Or there. Come on, honey. Go for it.”

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go, for the boy. He felt power draining out of him, lost his nerve. “Get out of my car,” the driver said to her dangerous passenger, “You’re wasting my time.”

There’s more to that story, more than I need to tell you. You may find it surprising that I’ve told you what I have—and I have because I can’t help seeing it as a powerful variation on the expected passive stereotype of what it means to turn the other cheek. In this story, the author creates a turning of the cheek that saves a woman’s life. Though she is left a victim of assault, she has wielded authority in a potent compliance that resists an evildoer by disarming his mind. In a moment of life or death, this woman chose life.

No, I’m not forgetting that Jesus commanded his disciples not to resist an evildoer. But I’m sure that he did not have in mind this woman’s dilemma. I expect he was asking his disciples to reject the insurgency of the Zealots, the super-patriots who would turn every struck cheek and commandeered cloak and forced second mile into an assassinated Roman soldier or a murdered Jewish collaborator. You may recall that Zealots appeared in the crowds around Jesus, even in the circle of his disciples were one or two who had, or still had, the Zealot in them. Jesus put them on notice that zeal which becomes hatred, zeal which becomes violence, cannot advance the Kingdom of God.

Every day for weeks now, we have watched tens and hundreds of thousands of zealous people demonstrating in the public squares of Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya, walking along the razor-edge, on one side their peaceful protest, on the other military and police response.

Images from Egypt show persevering demonstrators bandaged from yesterday’s wounds, ready again to run the same risk, turning the other cheek, day after day. This turning is not passive: it is powerful, a matter of life and death, and its results are changing the very course of history.

And we hold our breath, praying that what results from this courageous confrontation makes for peace and not a swapping of one tyranny for another.

We might do well to take from Jesus’s prompting to not resist an evildoer the message that in the present whirlpools of social upheaval we should suspend judgment that could label certain parties and factions as evil. It will take all emerging parties and factions to create a democracy in Egypt. In as long-settled a democracy as our own, we struggle to love our political opponents and social adversaries, but we know it is the right struggle to reach across congressional aisles and to hold our elected leaders to look beyond their own narrow partisan interests and make responsible decisions for the common good of us all.

And what Jesus holds us to is spoken in that breathtaking call, “Be perfect, as your God is perfect.” If ever a word needs opening-up, it’s that English word “perfect”. The Greek word it wants to translate is better heard in the phrase “all-embracing”. Be all-embracing, as your God is all-embracing.

There is the social vision of Jesus. It describes how he calls both church and state to be, though I believe the reign of God he advances cannot be contained in either church or state. The reign of God embraces all, requires all to practice a revolutionary love of enemies, opponents, and adversaries. To resist the evil of treating people as evil. To perfect an embrace that turns the other cheek with courage and potency that reaches the mind, and changes it.

Mary Gaitskill’s story “The Other Place” appears in the February 14th-21st , 2011 issue of the New Yorker

A Rector's Annual Report

Nearing the point of twenty-five years as Rector, I find that looking ahead draws me to see several key questions we need to raise, consider with openness to the wisdom of God, and answer.

We have a remarkable staff, talented, open-hearted, adventurous, and committed to the mission of St. John’s that brings them face to face with an ever-changing procession of people belonging to the parish, to our wider communities, and from beyond. Each person in that daily procession through our various portals (glass doors, red doors, e-mail, telephone, snail-mail) carries a need, a gift, a hope, an opportunity.

Key questions for staff and for all parish leaders is, How do we discern our part in response to people’s hopes-requests-offerings so that our response strengthens their faith, their practice, and their ministry? How do we avoid the disservice of over-performing that causes people to depend too much on us, not enough on God and themselves and the supportive community? And how do we avoid the opposite risk of under-serving the people God gives us, the people to whom we’re not yet listening, the people of whom we aren’t aware, the people to whom we don’t know how to respond?

That cluster of questions leads to another. Who are the “we” who respond? Twenty-five years ago, St. John’s still had an organized (though ageing) pastoral care team and a “prayer chain.” Though the Women of St. John’s (at one time a source of volunteer service) had disbanded, the parish culture and economy still yielded enough volunteerism to quickly rally for a funeral reception or to provide meals when a family needed them.

If volunteerism used to be given in cup-fulls or baskets-full, it sometimes seems that it’s by spoonfuls that it’s available now. Let’s avoid a spirit of complaint about this. We’re blessed by parish leaders serving in youth ministry, bringing communion as lay eucharistic visitors, leading evening prayer or leading Bingo at Sweet Brook Care Center, sitting on the Vestry and various committees, singing in choirs, overseeing parish life as wardens, and taking important initiatives in the congregation and in our wider communities. But how do we build our capacity for response to the needs and hopes and opportunities that people bring to us?

And how shall we build that capacity among all our generations, in particular young adults? That question tips this discussion towards information technology. In 2010, we made real strides, utilizing Constant Contact to develop e-mail communication, starting a process for envisioning IT needs in our future, and launching a handsome new Website, a big step forward and outward—though, in a glass-half-full-half-empty way, we’re bumping into limitations that we’ll need to address in a future overhaul, right about the time our children tell us we must replace those ancient pictures of them from 2009! A key question is how to keep moving the parish into social networking. Age is giving me wisdom to know that our younger parish leaders are the teachers we need to show us virtual portals to throw open.

In the face of all that’s new, in2010 we re-discovered the appeal of two age-old church activities—eating and singing—which, when combined in our Singing Suppers, have filled the upper room monthly on Friday evenings, mixing all our generations while building our appreciation for music old and new, music as our elders like it (out of the Hymnal) and music as our kids like it in Worship Outside the Box. A key question: How shall we support and develop this model (and others) for deepening parish community through what might be called ultimately informal “liturgy?”

I’ve saved for next-to-last the subject of our buildings. We saw great progress in 2010—or should I say that we’re all eager to see the results of that progress, and soon?—with the completion of extensive structural repair in the lower room and the near-completion of its renovation, along with re-situated and renovated adjacent bathrooms, and, just to their north, a room which we’ll use temporarily as a robing room until, in time, it may become part of a new church kitchen.

Think of that! The question, of course, is how do we get there? And by how circuitous a route, as we weigh the relative priority of major maintenance projects that seem to cut in line, like deteriorating front steps. Our key questions will be when and how to put our shoulders to the wheel of raising funds to continue our campaign to bring these buildings into the 21st-century.

The text on the cover of these reports urges us, “…like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” (I Peter 2:5) Building a community is why we’re here. A final key question we have to answer is how do we understand and build membership in St. John’s Parish? We recognize membership by participation: people join us by their choices, and we respond to them in what might be called a dance of inclusion. While that model respects the integrity of the seeker, doesn’t it make us sound passive? We’re fortunate that people keep appearing, but rather than waiting for the dance to begin in the sanctuary when newcomers find their way in, let’s picture the dance beginning out in the wider community when one of us invites a friend or neighbor to come with us to a service, a concert, or a Singing Supper.

However it is that a person steps into the dance of this congregation, we understand that vital signs matter more than formal credentials. But how do we honor Anglican tradition that values the sacramental act of being formally confirmed or received into membership in this branch of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church? In an age fascinated by spiritual wings, how do we give witness to the value of religious roots? In an age when denominational identity is felt to be less important than vital signs, how do we present the case for being confirmed or received at the hands of the Bishop?

He comes for that purpose on Sunday, May 22nd. His visitations are not frequent, about once every other year. Might it encourage you in your faith and practice and ministry to confirm your faith, be formally welcomed into the Episcopal Church, renew your baptismal vows in his presence? If that feels like a key question for you to answer, I’d like to know it.

I am grateful to and for so many people, what they do, and who they are, within this congregation. I’ve alluded to them, in this report, but not by name—there are just too many to attempt that. I’ll make one exception. In each of the years I’ve prepared a report like this, I’ve expressed my gratitude to Diana, my wife, and I’m not about to stop. The words of a great psalm tell me why. She restoreth my soul. She maketh me to slow down and enjoy those green pastures. She is with me to comfort me, and causes my cup to run over. I am very fortunate.

In this report, I’ve named key questions that I believe we must answer. Did you hear one that draws you to help us consider it? I’d like to know. Will you tell me, or any of our Vestry members, if there is one of these key questions for which you’ve got energy, care, and calling? As I see it, these questions point us to our work in these next several years.

1. How do leaders respond to people, to truly strengthen them?

2. Across our generations, but especially with young adults, how do we build our capacity to respond and lead?

3. How do we keep moving St. John’s into effective social networking?

4. How do we support and develop models of building community?

5. When and how do we resume our campaign to renew our buildings?

6. How do we vitalize membership?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Where's the Evidence?

Scripture for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Micah 6:1-8, I Corinthians 1:18-31, and Matthew 5:1-12

I wonder why Jesus went up that mountain.

Because it was there? If that means for the thrill of it, I don’t think so. This wasn’t Mount Rainier. It wasn’t Mount Greylock. It wasn’t even Pine Cobble. I may be wrong, but I think we’re talking Stone Hill.

Was it to purposely thin the ranks? When he saw the crowds, did he judge that it was time to cull out the sensation-seekers, the circus crowd, the gawkers and the hawkers? Is Jesus asking, “Let’s see who’s willing to exert themselves?”

Perhaps he needed some critical distance. If what he saw was a crowd that would engulf him, how could he address them? “Maybe,” said someone at the Sweetwood eucharist last Monday, “up that mountain was a natural amphitheater where he could be seen and heard.”

Once there, he sat down (the ancient posture for preaching and teaching, one that levels speaker and audience, unlike a pulpit) and “his disciples came to him.” When he spoke, he “taught them.” The disciples appear to be his audience.

But wait: what became of that crowd? He’s talking to them, too, above the heads of that team of leaders.

This reminds me of the President giving the State of the Union address. There, fanned out in front of him, were modern equivalents of former fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots (some of them not necessarily former). The President appeared to be talking to them, but we too were his audience. At times, President Obama utilized his up-close audience, like that moment when he looked out across the chamber at all those mixed couples practicing bipartisan cohabitation and, speaking at the same moment to them and to us, said something to the effect that we need Congress to exert more than experimental seating plans in order to truly work together for the nation’s good.

I believe simultaneous communication not unlike that is going on in this Gospel. Jesus has arrayed in front of him his cabinet, his joint chiefs, and while he teaches them he speaks also to the crowds.

I’ll use Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” to help us listen in.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and God’s rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are— no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. God is food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment when care flows from a full heart, you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”

And in each case, at each teaching, he’s able to point to his disciples as evidence of what he means. Now, what follows is not by Eugene Peterson. I’ll take the rap for this. I’m imagining Jesus presenting his disciples as evidence of what he means. Scattered among the Beatitudes I hear asides like these.

“I’m sending these little ones into the world like lambs among wolves, to heal the sick and feed the hungry and raise the dead—they live at the end of the rope where it has to be less of them and more of God.”

“Each of these salty souls has left what is familiar: parents, home, career. You know them: it’s a small world around the Sea of Galilee, these are your neighbors, though they’re not at the corner tavern so much these days. How do they look to you? They’ve had to let go of a lot, but ask them how they balance their losses and their gains.”

“Radically equal, leveled by love, these agents of mine are learning to set a table for all, poor and rich, influential and marginal, female and male, old and young. And God is the menu. Soon they’ll show you! How many are you? Four thousand? Five thousand? Keep your eyes on these twelve…”

Mountains were known as holy places, front lines of encounter with God. Jesus has gone up this one to shape a new culture, one that appreciates how things are not always as they seem, how in fact God sets our expectations upside-down and inside-out, causes us to reconsider old assumptions and see with fresh eyes evidence that is all around us.

In that first century, God’s evidence included twelve disciples who may have thought they were the inner audience as God’s own anointed servant Jesus addresses the state of the union between the earthly and the heavenly. But they are actually Jesus’s Exhibit A, imperfect incarnations, examples, evidence of his meaning before a much wider audience.

In this twenty-first century, we the baptized are just as needed if the world is to see evidence of what Jesus means.

On the mountainside, a metaphor of the Church’s calling: to be gathered at the feet of Jesus, listening; and simultaneously to be proof to the world, letting his Word become flesh in us, allowing ourselves to be recognizable evidence of what he means.